“As a professional trainer and owner of Animal Behavior College, which teaches more people to become professional trainers than any other school, I have been to dog parks thousands of times,” explains Steve Appelbaum. “Based on those experiences we teach our trainers to educate all dog park participants about safety at the dog park.”
Learn to Read Body Language
Dogs are wonderful communicators with each other and with practice you can learn to read a great deal about a dog’s intent, mood and message. Here are examples of basic body postures:
- Tail up and stiffly wagging can mean aggression.
- Hackles up can mean fear or aggression.
- Lips lifted with a growl can warn of fear or aggression.
- Chest thrust out can mean confidence and possibly aggression.
- Body held stiffly erect, chest thrown out and walking stiffly is dominant and possibly aggressive.
- Direct eye contact can mean confidence and often dominance.
- Ears held back or even flat against the head is a sign of submission and/or fear.
- Body held low to the ground in a “slinking” posture is usually submission or fear. Eyes partially closed (squinty) can mean fear or submissive behavior. It can also be playful.
- Lips lifted into what looks like a smile, with no growl can sometimes mean submission.
- Tail wagging loosely usually means friendly and relaxed.
Children at the Park
Parents should avoid taking children under the age of 5 unless they are supervised 100% of the time and are comfortable with all different sizes of dogs. Small children are at risk if they panic, scream, cry and run away from dogs because dogs can interpret that as “prey in distress” and sometimes become aggressive. Others may simply think the children are playing and respond with more rambunctious play like jumping on them.
Children should be encouraged to move slowly and calmly around dogs. Children, as well as adults, should not pet strange dogs without asking the owner first. Children should not take food to the dog park as dogs will take that as an open invitation to try to steal it which can create problems. This isn’t to suggest children should never go to a dog park, but they need to know how to act around dogs in order to make the experience positive for all.
When Dogs Fight
Although serious fights are rare it’s important to know how to address them. Making a loud noise can distract and stop dogs from fighting. You can use an air horn or a soda can filled with 30 pennies and taped closed. Shake it and you have a very effective noise maker that startles many fighting dogs before things get out of hand. Obviously, you will want to bring this to the park prior to any problems. Water is also a good deterrent especially if it is cold and thrown over both fighters. Here too, distraction and startling is the goal.
Once the combatants separate they can be taken away from each other. If this doesn’t work then, with the aid of a second person, you can stop most fights by grabbing the dog’s back legs and lifting them off the ground. Please note, this is not suggesting that you lift the entire dog’s body off the ground, just the back legs and that the second person do the same thing with the other dog. In most cases this is very disconcerting for the dog. That, coupled with the fact a dog uses his back legs for purchase and leverage in a fight, means that most dogs when handled this way, let go of each other. As soon as they do you need to pull them apart. Once apart, grasp them by their collars and take them away from one another. Breaking up a fight should only be done as a last resort as there is risk the dog will bite or injure you.